The Fort Dearborn Massacre

Fort Dearborn was constructed in 1803. The War Department needed a fort at the mouth of the Chicago River; what is now Chicago was growing rapidly, and a legitimate outpost was in order. Troops arrived in the area on August 17th and began building shelters and a stockade. A year later, Fort Dearborn (named in honor of the Secretary of War) was completed.

For some years the garrison was peaceful and traders flourished. However, the outbreak of the War of 1812 with Great Britain moved the government to order the evacuation of the fort. The threatening attitude of local Potawatomi and Wynadot Indians led the entire population of the settlement around Fort Dearborn to take part in the evacuation. After leaving the fort, the evacuees were attacked; many settlers were slaughtered, and the fort was destroyed.

Fort Dearborn was rebuilt in 1816, and was occupied by United States troops for twenty-one years. In 1837 it was once again abandoned, but stood until 1856. The history that can be pieced together is as follows:

The original Fort Dearborn was a simple stockade of logs that were sharpened, placed on end, and planted into the ground; basically what you think of when you think “fort.” The outer stockade was a solid wall with a gated entrance, and legend has it that there was even a secret underground entrance that led beneath the north wall to the river. Inside the fort were a parade ground, officers’ quarters, troop barracks, a guardhouse, and an ammunition magazine.

In 1804, a man named John Kinzie settled in the region and bought out the property of Jean Lalime (who had himself bought it from John Baptiste Pointe DuSable, Chicago’s founder). Kinzie quickly assumed the role of the civilian leader of the area, trading and dealing with the local Indian population. He encouraged close ties with the Potawatomi, which created tension with some of the local white settlers. Kinzie would figure prominently in the events that were to come.

In 1810, Captain Whistler was replaced by Captain Nathan Heald, who brought with him Lieutenant Linus T. Helm. Both were strong soldiers with experience on the frontier. Helm soon married the stepdaughter of John Kinzie. In addition to she and Heald’s wife, there were now other women at the fort, all wives of the men stationed there. Within two years, there were 12 women and 20 children at Fort Dearborn. The settlement around Fort Dearborn was beginning to boom.

The effects of the War of 1812 had brought many Indians into alliance with the British. They (correctly) saw Americans as the invaders of their lands. After the British captured the American garrison at Mackinac (an island at the very tip of Lake Michigan), Fort Dearborn was in great danger. Orders came from General William Hull that Heald should abandon the fort and leave its contents to the local Indians.

Unfortunately, Heald delayed in carrying out the evacuation, and soon the American troops had no good way to leave. The local Potawatomi and Wynadot arrived in numbers, gathering around the fort. It quickly became obvious to Captain Heald that he was going to have to bargain with them if the occupants of Fort Dearborn were going to safely reach Fort Wayne.

On August 12, Heald left the fort and held council with the Indians gathered outside. By this time, it was estimated that 500 Indians were encamped at the fort. Heald proposed to the chiefs that he would distribute to them the stores and ammunition in the fort, in exchange for safe conduct to Fort Wayne. This was agreed upon, and conditions were set to abandon the stockade.

Unfortunately, Heald was met with alarmed soldiers upon his return to the fort. They questioned the distribution of guns and ammunition that could easily be used against them. Heald reluctantly agreed, and the extra weapons and ammunition were destroyed, and their remnants dumped into an abandoned well. In addition, the stores of whiskey were dumped into the river. The Potawatomi and Wynadot observed this, and they too began making plans that differed from those agreed upon with Captain Heald.

On August 14, Captain William Wells arrived at Fort Dearborn. He and 30 Miami warriors had managed to get through the throng outside. Wells was a frontier legend among early soldiers and settlers in the Illinois territory. Captured by Indians as a child, he was adopted into the family of Little Turtle, the famous war chief of the Miami. Later, Wells served as a scout under General “Mad Anthony” Wayne and was currently serving as an Indian agent at Fort Wayne. Also, he was also the uncle of Captain Heald’s wife, and after hearing of the evacuation of Fort Dearborn (and knowing the hostile fervor of the local tribes) he’d made his way to the fort to assist in the evacuation.

Late on the evening of the 14th, another council was held between Heald, Wells, and the Indians. Heald was told that, despite the anger over the destruction of the ammunition and whiskey, the garrison would still be conducted safely to Fort Wayne. In return, Heald was told that he had to abandon the fort immediately. By this time, Heald had more than just his men and their families to think of. John Kinzie and the other local settlers had also come to the fort for protection. Heald agreed without an argument.

Throughout the night, wagons were loaded and reserve ammunition was distributed, amounting to about 25 rounds per man. Early the next morning, the procession of soldiers, civilians, women, and children left Fort Dearborn. The infantry soldiers led the way, followed by a caravan of wagons and mounted men. The rear of the column was guarded by a portion of the Miami who had accompanied Wells. They, along with Wells himself, did not believe the promises made by the Potawatomi and Wynadot, and they had their faces painted for war.

The column of soldiers and settlers was escorted by nearly 500 Potawatomi Indians. As they marched southward into a low range of dunes separating the beaches of Lake Michigan from the prairie, the Potawatomi moved silently to the right, placing a dune between themselves and the evacuees. The act was carried out with such stealth that it went virtually unnoticed. A little further down the beach, the dune ended and the two groups would come together again.

The column traveled to what is now 16th Street and Indiana Avenue. There was a sudden milling about of the scouts at the front of the line, and suddenly a shout came up from Captain Wells: the Indians were attacking. A line of Potawatomi appeared over the dune and fired down at the column of settlers and soldiers. The officers managed to rally the men into a battle line, but it was of little use. Too many were injured in the early moments of the attack, and the line collapsed. The Potawatomi overwhelmed the evacuating soldiers and settlers, flanking the line and snatching the wagons and horses.

What followed was savage. Officers were slain with tomahawks. The fort’s surgeon was cut down by gunfire and then literally chopped into pieces. Mrs. Heald was wounded by gunfire, but was luckily spared when captured by a sympathetic Potawatomi Chief. The wife of another soldier was not as lucky; she’d fought intensely and was hacked into pieces because of it. Nearly everyone who fell had his or her head chopped off.

John Kinzie’s niece survived, though she’d been wounded by a tomahawk. Eventually she was spirited away by a Potawatomi named Black Partridge, a childhood friend. In the end, cut down to less than half their original number, the garrison surrendered under another promise of safe conduct. In all, 148 members of the column were killed; 86 of them adults and 12 of them children.

Captain Wells had been captured early in the fighting, but he managed to escape from his captors. Taking a horse, he rode into the Potawatomi camp in a blind fury. The barrage of bullets fired at him missed their mark, but his horse was brought down and he was captured again. Two Chiefs interceded to save his life, but Pesotum, another Chief, stabbed Wells in the back and killed him. His heart was then cut out and distributed to the other warriors as a token of bravery. The next day, a half-breed Wynadot named Billy Caldwell gathered the remains of Wells’ mutilated body and buried it in the sand. Wells Street now bears his name.

Captain Heald was wounded twice in the battle; Mrs. Heald was wounded seven times. They were later released and a St. Joseph Indian named Chaudonaire took them to Mackinac, where they were turned over to the British commander there. He sent them on to Detroit where they were turned over to the American authorities.

John Kinzie and his family were also miraculously spared. His friendship with the Potawatomi led to their deliverance from the massacre. He returned to Chicago a year later, but found much had changed by then. He failed to get his business going again, and took a position with the American Fur Company, who had once been his largest competitor.

In time, the Illinois fur trade came to an end and Kinzie worked as a trader and Indian interpreter until his death in 1828. At that point, thanks to revisionist history books written by his descendants, Kinzie was almost enshrined as a founder of Chicago. Through the 1800’s, history overlooked his questionable business practices, like selling liquor to the Indians and even the reputed murder of a business rival. It would not be until much later that Kinzie’s role in Chicago history would even be questioned.

Other survivors were taken as prisoners. Some died soon after, while others were sold to the British as slaves. The British who quickly freed them, appalled by the carnage they had experienced. Fort Dearborn itself was burned to the ground by the victorious Indians and the bodies of the victims were left where they had fallen, scattered to decay in the dunes of Lake Michigan.

When replacement troops arrived at the site of Fort Dearborn a year later, they were greeted with not only the burned-out shell of the fort, but the grinning skeletons of their predecessors and the luckless settlers. The bodies were given proper burials and the fort was rebuilt in 1816. The troops left for the last time in 1836, when the city was able to fend for itself.

As for the Indians, the Potawatomi soon began denying any responsibility for the massacre, passing the blame to the Winnebago Indians. The price for the massacre would be high for those who had existed peacefully with the white settlers before the war. Memories of the slaughter led to the removal of the Indians from the region, and by 1833 their forced removal from Chicago was complete.

The Massacre site can be visited today, although it (of course) looks nothing like it did at the time of the event. Only a small metal plaque remains to mark the spot of the slaughter. It is posted at the corner of 18th and Prairie Avenue.